Moments in my life #3: Dealing with Pain

If you read this blog regularly you will know that I am preoccupied with pain. There are at least ten posts wherein I address pain more or less directly. This one will make it eleven. What triggered my writing this post is a Zoom class I had yesterday on Somatics designed to help us deal with chronic pain. It comes from the Central Island Pain Program at the Nanaimo General Hospital, an organization I had something to do with several years ago after I experienced a lot of pain from kidney surgery. I’ll deal with Somatics at the end of this blog post.

Pain! There are a few people who do not experience pain at all (their condition is called congenital insensitivity to pain,(CIP) or also hereditary sensory and autonomic neuropathy type IV (HSAN IV). Those individuals who can’t feel pain wish they could because if they inadvertently put their hand on a hot stove element they don’t know about it until they smell burning flesh, that’s if their sense of smell is operative which it often isn’t. (There is some very interesting research reported on a Wikipedia site about the gene that is involved in congenital insensitivity to pain.)

So pain is not always a bad thing.

In fact pain is a signal that something is not quite right in our body. For instance, the sensation (pain) I feel in my left thoracic area is a result of surgery, as I noted earlier. I had my left kidney removed because of kidney cell cancer. That was in 2002 and the sensation has not gone away although it varies in severity. These days I don’t feel it that often but that’s because I don’t stress that area of my body by doing work or sitting inappropriately. A few years ago a doctor at the Pain Clinic at the Nanaimo General Hospital ultimately suggested that I have a tens machine implanted in that part of my thoracic area to relieve pain. I respectfully declined the invitation. In the Pain Clinic’s orientation session the staff told us that the pain we were experiencing in various parts of our bodies was really in our brains, not at the site of the trauma. Apparently it’s the brain that tells us that we have pain. If the brain doesn’t get a signal from the site of trauma, we don’t experience pain. I experience pain in various parts of my body these days and it seems that the pain receptors in my brain are quite active but the pain always seems to be located at the trauma site.

Pain is not just one type of bodily phenomenon or experience. If you go to the emergency department of the local hospital or to your family physician’s clinic you may very well be asked what kind of pain you are having. I always find that a difficult question to answer. Well, are you having stabbing pain? Or is it like electric shock? Or is it throbbing pain? My answer is often “yes” because I can experience several kinds of pain simultaneously. For example, my neck pain can be quite severe at times. I experience it as stabbing pain or what I call ‘charley-horse’ pain because of the cramping that accompanies it, but there’s always an underlying throbbing pain too that varies in severity. It’s caused by degenerative disc syndrome which is very common in older people and by arthritis. Simultaneously I’m having peripheral neuropathy and my legs hurt as well as my lower back. So I have lots of pain in various parts of my body. In fact, there are dozens of types of pain, some specific, some very general.

The Johns Hopkins Blaustein Pain Treatment Center website provides a list of pain types for our reading pleasure:

“At the Johns Hopkins Blaustein Pain Treatment Center, we provide treatment for the following types of pain:

  • Low back pain
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Vertebral Compression Fractures
  • Cervical and lumbar facet joint disease
  • Sciatica/Radiculopathy (“pinched nerve”)
  • Sacroiliac joint disease
  • Failed back surgery pain (FBSS) / Post-Laminectomy Neuropathic Pain
  • Neuropathic (Nerve) pain
  • Head pain / Occipital neuralgia (Scalp/head pain)
  • Hip pain
  • Intercostal neuralgia (Rib pain)
  • Peripheral neuropathy (Diabetic nerve pain)
  • Complex regional pain syndrome (Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy –  RSD)
  • Herniated discs and degenerative disc disease (discogenic pain)
  • Neck pain
  • Shoulder and knee arthritic pain (osteoarthritis)
  • Myofascial (Muscular) pain
  • Post surgical pain
  • Cancer pain (pancreatic, colorectal, lung, breast, bone)
  • Pain from peripheral vascular disease
  • Anginal pain (chest pains)
  • Post-herpetic neuralgia (shingles pain)
  • Nerve entrapment syndromes
  • Spastisticy related syndromes/ pain
  • Spinal Cord Injury (central pain)
  • Pelvic pain
  • Thoracic outlet syndrome”

Well, shit, I can experience any ten of these types of pain at any one given time. So, if you ask me what kind of pain I’m having, take your pick. Don’t ask me to come up with just one, unless of course, at any specific moment a particular pain experience is taking centre stage as in my appendectomy.

Is it acute or chronic? Well, yes!

Acute pain is the result of injury. Chronic pain is the result of disease. That may be a classificatory simplification, but it’s basically accurate. To me, my neck pain seems to be both. There’s definitely disease going on in there, but if I move my neck suddenly or if I try to do something like draw, paint, or work on my canoes, the resultant pain feels like pain caused by an injury. If I (or you) have chronic pain from one or more sources, that doesn’t mean I can’t also experience acute pain, and vice versa.

And what about the intensity of the pain? Well, goddamn it, that’s another tough question to answer. Doctors and other sundry medical types generally trot out the ten point scale to measure pain intensity, but there is a list of ten scales here, so it’s not simple. Pain clinics are everywhere and are very busy these days. I’m currently attending the Pain Clinic at the Nanaimo Regional Hospital (again!). Well, I’m not really attending, yet. So far all interactions with the clinic have been by Zoom. But on October 6th I’m going to Nanaimo to have a steroid injected into my neck to see if we can attenuate the pain signals to the brain. That’s a good solution because surgery is not really an option and it’s so common among old folks like me that it’s hardly worth the bother to consider. Palliative care is the goal. It’s interesting, though, that the decision to inject the steroid is a tacit recognition that pain starts at the site of trauma. I have bone pain. It’s clear that that’s caused by multiple myeloma and its propensity to cause bone lesions. The bone lesions in my femurs result in pain signals to my brain where I’m told pain is experienced. So how can this kind of pain, or any of the pain I’m experiencing, be treated? Well, let me count the ways!

Just to be clear, I mentioned palliative care in the above paragraph. As this website notes, palliative care is all about pain management. It’s not the same as hospice care or what we sometimes refer to end-of-life care. So palliative doctors (there are some in the Comox Valley) focus on pain relief mostly for chronic severe pain. They offer a number of treatments for pain relief.

Overall, there are many treatment options for severe chronic pain. Medications are commonly used for pain relief. Opioids like hydromorphone are quite often used. I take hydromorphone orally every day. Gabapentin and nortriptyline are two I’m familiar with but there are hundreds or meds used for pain relief (Google it). Surgery is often used to relieve pain as are injections of various kinds like the one I’ll be getting next month where a steroid will be injected in my neck. There is a procedure where a cement is injected into vertebrae to relieve pain and there is a procedure where a balloon is used to open up the spaces in the vertebrae blocked by compression.

The Pain Clinic at the Nanaimo General Hospital offers many options for classes designed to help one address pain by conscious activation of the autonomic nervous system with gentle ‘exercise’. Somatics is a practice used to slowly and consciously re-program the nervous system to deal with pain. I’ll give it a try. Muscle tension is a major source of pain so anything that can relieve tension is worth a try. So far, for me, medications have been the major treatment I’ve received for pain relief. They haven’t always worked that well. Hydromorphone works but to relieve pain I need to take so much that it leaves me cognitively impaired and that’s not something I’m willing to entertain. So I put up with some pain so that I can retain some cognitive and psychic sharpness.

That’s enough for today, and maybe I’ve written enough about pain. Thanks for reading my posts.

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